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6 Types of Coughs and What They Mean

6 Types of Coughs and What They Mean

A cough is your body’s way of releasing air to clean some type of irritation in the throat or airways, such as dust. An occasional cough is considered normal and is rarely a cause for concern. However, if a cough persists for weeks and produces discolored or bloody mucus, it can be a symptom of an underlying illness or condition.

One of the most common symptoms for COVID-19 is the presence of a dry, non-productive cough along with fever and fatigue. To learn more about the symptoms of COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a chronic cough is one of the most common reasons for scheduling a doctor’s appointment. Knowing the type of cough you are exhibiting and for how long you’ve been experiencing it can give you a clue into its cause.

Non-Productive (or Dry Cough)

If you’ve had a cold, flu or other respiratory illness recently, you may develop a dry cough, also known as a non-productive cough, following the sickness. A non-productive cough is what it sounds like, dry without any mucus or phlegm. It may cause a slight tickle in the back of your throat and produce a dry, hollow sound.

What is a Non-Productive Cough a Symptom of?

A non-productive, dry cough is your body’s response to some type of irritation in your airways or it can even be the result of breathing in very dry, heated air. However, there are many illnesses that can produce or result in a non-productive cough, including allergies, asthma, bronchitis, the flu or a typical common cold.

If this is the case, the cough should go away on its own. Cough medicine, humidifiers and cough drops may be recommended to relieve the discomfort of a non-productive cough. But, in severe cases, a person can be dry coughing so hard that they can injure their ribs or the muscles that run between them. If you are experiencing a dry cough that is not getting better, is producing blood or green mucus and is accompanied by a fever, you should see a doctor.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is quite common. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 18-28% of people in the U.S. are living with GERD. Coughing is a very common sign of GERD. It is reported that 40% of all people diagnosed with GERD experience a chronic cough. In addition to coughing, patients with GERD commonly experience heartburn and a sour taste in their mouth, which is caused by the acid back-up in the esophagus. Chronic, non-productive coughing fits at night are also common.


A chronic cough may be the predominant or even the only symptom of asthma. Asthma can produce a non-productive cough, also known as cough-variant asthma, which is a result of inflammation in the airways. However, less commonly asthma can also produce a productive cough. Typically, coughing as a result of asthma is worse during the night or early in the morning when you first wake up. Other symptoms of asthma along with a productive or non-productive cough include wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain or tightness.

Hay Fever

Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is a common allergic condition that affects approximately 40 million to 60 million Americans each year. Hay fever has similar symptoms to the common cold, including watery eyes, sniffling, fatigue and a persistent, non-productive cough. Unfortunately, hay fever lasts for more than two weeks and produces a chronic cough that can seem unrelenting. However, the cough that hay fever produces does not usually occur with a fever, headache or body aches and pains, unless an underlying condition, such as asthma, is present.

Productive (or Wet Cough)

Unlike a dry cough, a wet cough, also known as a productive cough, produces fluid, such as mucus and phlegm, that is felt in the bronchi or throat. It is a sign that there is fluid in the airways.

What is a Productive Cough a Symptom of?

Typically, a productive cough is a symptom of a viral or bacterial infection. During an infection, your body starts to produce more mucus, which will trigger a coughing reflex in your body.

Other more serious illnesses or conditions that a wet cough may be a symptom of include a heart condition, chronic lung condition or respiratory infection. If you have a productive cough that persists more than a couple of days and you’re unsure of the cause, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor. When your doctor determines the underlying cause of your productive cough, they can then begin treatment.

Viral and Bacterial Infections

If you have a viral or bacterial infection, you will likely develop a non-productive or productive cough. This is because these infections commonly affect the throat, airways and the airways going into the lungs. Usually, along with the viral infection, the cough will run its course. However, if the cough persists for more than a couple of weeks, your doctor may prescribe codeine, dextromethorphan or another cough suppressant. If you’re diagnosed with a bacterial infection, antibiotics will usually be prescribed to treat it. Antibiotics typically cause the cough to go away in a couple of days.

Post-Nasal Drip

A post-nasal drip is caused when mucus from the nose and sinuses enters the back of the throat. This process can trigger a productive cough, although it can also less commonly produce a non-productive cough. Symptoms of a post-nasal drip include a sore throat, frequent swallowing and congestion. Post-nasal drips have many causes that vary, such as colds, flu, allergies, pregnancy, a deviated septum or even certain foods. You may need to make an appointment with your doctor if you’re unsure of the cause of the post-nasal drip or it is not going away. Treatment options for a post-nasal drip include nasal saline irrigation, nasal sprays and decongestants.

Fortunately, coughs usually clear up on their own and there are many home and over-the-counter remedies available that can provide you relief until they have run their course. If the cause of a cough is difficult to diagnose, your doctor may order you to receive a diagnostic test, such as a chest X-ray.

If you or a loved one is experiencing persistent coughing or you’re unsure of the cause of the coughing, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor. If you’re in Connecticut and would like to find a doctor near you, you can locate a board-certified PACT primary care physician using our searchable list here.

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